Reviewer: Truong Buu Lam: Dr. Lam earned his Doctorate in History from the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium many years ago. He has since taught history of Southeast Asia at several Colleges and Universities in Vietnam and the USA. He has authored a few works on Vietnamese history. He is now retired and the last affiliation was the University of Hawaii.
All the necessary ingredients for an overwhelming suspense are present in these pages: international spying, trial argumentation, scenes of war, erotic tableaux, lavish life in a royal court, clandestine encounters in dark secret passages.
This book has many secrets too. First of all: the author: Siam Unnamed amounts to Siam Anonymous although there is nothing in the text that tells me that its author should be Siam and not French or Italian for that matter. Next, fortunately, a passage in the book explains to us the meaning of the title: “…Mara is the God of Death, but also the symbol of kama, God of sensual love, which binds people to samsara, the flow of existences. Its five flowery arrows, the five senses, have the task of lead [sic] the ascetics astray from their pursuit of freedom.” (11) Then, although the book is copyrighted to Giuseppe Zanoni, he is obviously NOT its author, for the manuscript is supposed to date from the end of the 18th century. After that, we learn that the manuscript never saw the light of day because “..eastern thinking at the end of the XIX century (and perhaps today) would not have received a tale of this kind…”(p.10). Furthermore, while it is easy to see why it is Carlo Maria Ferlingotti Pezoldi, the curator of the italian edition of this manuscript, who writes the foreword, we do not know who Alessia Sofia Montebano is who penned the epilogue. Finally, the translator’s name is Maria Burnett although we do not know from what version of the manuscript she did the translation. The translator, however, did a good job, except that somebody should have proofread more carefully the galleys. One sample: we do not know for sure what the name of one of the main characters is because it is spelled differently in so many ways that one wonders whether one is in the presence of one or several different persons!
To summarize: this is a translation of an anonymous manuscript dated 1787 narrating a series of intrigues happening during the second half of the 9th century, from 861 to 900, and concerning a prince of the kingdom of Chiengsen, living as a political hostage in the palace of the King of the Khmer kingdom. He was deprived of freedom, but not of other amenities of life: beautiful and available women, healthy and strong young men. The intrigues include: the assassination of an ambassador from the Middle Kingdom and that of a Khmer prince. Both crimes involved a complex network of spies working for all the surrounding kingdoms: Khmer, Chiengsen, Nanchao, Burma (or the Mon of Pagan) and, of course, China.
Claiming to be a historical novel, this text has done a fairly good job in at least one instance: describing the general situation of diverse components of the Southeast Asian region in the 9th century, although it churned out a few rather obvious anachronisms. For example, although the plot is supposedly placed in the end of the 9th century, the text describes lavishly certain monuments in the Angkor complex, monuments that were built much later. In any case, it succeeds in holding all the way through the readers ‘ attention’ in a perfectly suspenful plot. I don’t see why the author had to have recourse to a historical subterfuge which places an interval of almost a thousand years between the action and the narrator.
All in all, it is a page turning text, if one can overcome early enough in the reading process the troublesome questions of title, manuscript, version, author.
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